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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Barefoot Hiking

Air Date: Week of

Karen Kelly of the Great lakes Radio Consortium reports on a growing number of hikers who are re-discovering the pleasures of doing it barefoot.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Most of us can remember going barefoot as a kid. The feel of warm sand, ouch-y pebbles, hot pavement, and the early morning dew on our feet. But as we get older, we start to worry about stepping on or in something. So, we keep our feet covered up, or at least most of us do. As Karen Kelly of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports, a growing number of grown-up hikers are giving their boots the boot. She caught up with one of the new breed of bare-footers in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

KELLY: I hate bare feet. Whether they're mine or someone else's, I really don't want to look at them. Yet, here I am going hiking with a guy who doesn't wear shoes.


ADAMS: You just have to watch your footing.

KELLY: I meet Elliott Adams at the foot of Baldface Mountain in the central Adirondacks. He's dressed like a school custodian, except he has bare feet, which poke out from under his blue chinos. I have to admit, Adams’ feet do look good. There aren't any blisters on them, and his toes aren't all scrunched up. Soon, I realize they also give him better footing. He scrambles over rocks, and plows without hesitation through muddy streams.

(Footfalls, splashes)

KELLY: The last thing you want when you're hiking is wet feet. Elliott Adams' solution is to take his boots off.

ADAMS: We were walking on the northward Lake Placid Trail on the typical rainy vacation, and suddenly I thought: Gee, you know, my feet would be drying out between these puddles, but my boots have gotten wet and are just staying wet. So, I took my boots off, and my feet were drying out between the puddles instead of being soaking wet the whole time.


KELLY: That was 20 years ago. Adams hasn't worn hiking boots since. He escaped relatively unnoticed until he climbed the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks. Then local newspapers began featuring him and large pictures of his bare feet. But he's not in it for the notoriety. As logger and mayor of the town of Sharon Springs, New York, Mr. Adams wears shoes on the job. But he has developed a reputation as the barefoot mayor.

ADAMS: Everybody knows I go barefoot. People say, well, go look for the guy who doesn't have any shoes on. But that's different than being the mayor. In a small town, people have to know you both as the office and as an individual.

KELLY: Elliott Adams goes barefoot at home, in town, even in businesses if they'll let him. He says it's the only way he can toughen up his feet. He encounters people who are friendly and curious. And then there are the folks who just get upset.

ADAMS: Dangerous. That's what I hear all the time, it's really dangerous. Oh, really? I don't know what the big danger is. I mean, some guy accosted me one time and said, "Well, I saw a program about all the evil things that you can get through your feet." I thought: Let's see, what's the calculated risk of that, and you're going to hop in your car and drive home, which is infinitely more risky.

KELLY: Elliott Adams is one of a growing number of shoeless hikers. About 20 barefoot hiking groups now operate nationwide. Richard Frazeen founded the first group in Thomaston , Connecticut, and is the author of The Barefoot Hiker. He says the experience opens a whole new world.

FRAZEEN: It's a more intense experience of nature. We're looking for as close, as intimate, if you want to use that word, an experience of the outdoors as we can get. And those of us who do this all the time would no more want to be shod in the woods than we would want to be blindfolded or earmuffed or wear a clothespin on our nose.


KELLY: Elliott Adams and I have reached the top of Baldface Mountain. And as I look at Adams' bare feet sunning themselves on a big rock, mine start to itch. So I reach down and slowly unlace my boots.

(To Adams) You know, I feel embarrassed taking my shoes off in front of you.

ADAMS: Isn't that fascinating. (Both laugh) How obscene.

KELLY: (Laughs) I know, I do. It makes me feel undressed.
Adams leads me to a rock covered with different types of moss. Under my bare feet, some feel wet and squishy. Others are like dry corn flakes.

(To Adams) Ooh. Ooh, wow. Ugh. Oh gosh, I don't know.

ADAMS: This looks stiff and dry.

KELLY: Ooh. Yeah, I like this one. This feels like a velvet pillow. You know, I have to say, I kind of like this. (Laughs)

Before long it's time to head back down the mountain. Reluctantly I put my boots back on. My toes feel cramped, and with every step I stub them on the inside of the boots. Suddenly, I understand why some hikers become barefooters. I watch Elliott Adams with envy as he pads along the soft dirt trail. He doesn't preach at others to join him, but his movements send a message that treading lightly, and shoeless on the earth, can be a fun way to go.


KELLY: For Living on Earth, I'm Karen Kelly in Indian Lake, New York.



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